Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. 2006. Directed by Scott Glosserman. Screenplay by Glosserman & David J. Stieve.
Starring Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Bridgett Newton, Kate Miner, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Hart Turner, Krissy Carlson, Travis Zariwny, Teo Gomez, Matt Bolt, & Jenafer Brown.
Glen Echo Entertainment/ Code Entertainment
Rated R. 92 minutes.
Since Scream there have been a slew of horror movies, especially in the slasher sub-genre, which tried their hand at being self-referential, dissecting slasher horror in a smart, sly way. None really captured the magic Wes Craven did in that contemporary classic. At least, until Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon arrived and made it clear that copying Craven wasn’t the only option.
What director Scott Glosserman does so well with this film is it deconstructs the slasher sub-genre in a way much different from Craven, in that it isn’t wholly based on being self-referential and namedropping the genre, playing with a few tropes. This goes beyond that, explaining all those nagging questions we’ve always had about these types of killers. All the while crafting a new legend.
Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) is a serial killer, one whose myth has spread around his hometown. He’s preparing to come back for a spree. This has led a documentary film crew, headed by Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), to interview him, in order to gain an up close, personal perspective on the sorts of people who commit these crimes. In the process, we discover so much of Leslie, as well as by proxy about Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and all the rest.
“You have no idea how much more cardio I have to do. It‘s ridiculous.”
Not only is the story and its plot self-referential, it is also self-deprecating at times. Knowing exactly when to take itself seriously, and likewise when to throw that out the window, letting loose. It’s a film which knows how to laugh, and when to dig deeper, darker. It’s also working on an intertextual level with the slasher sub-genre as a whole and horror films in general, filled with various references to horror films such as Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, just to mention a couple.
The best aspect is how we discover all of those things that are surely on horror fans minds. We’re show the methods of a slasher to gain the uncanny abilities they all have, giving them the power to chase down victims, disappear into thin air, reappear. This involves a strict physical fitness regimen, practising sleight of hand magic, spending time in a sensory deprivation chamber to hone the senses and slow the heartbeat. All those lingering genre questions are answered: How does a slasher walk faster than their running prey? How does a slasher appear exactly where you assume they won’t, or slip out of someplace after it seems they’re dead? Leslie helps us understand, all of it.
Additionally, there are a few outlying themes. Such as the consideration of media – to be specific, ethics, and what sort of role it plays in the infamy of killers. Do they get the story, by any means necessary? Or drop the camera to help people? It’s often mutually exclusive, at least in that the story won’t be as deeply cutting, hard hitting and profound without the up close horror and sensationalism. The media’s role, both in art and in the world of journalism, involves popularising killers, something we see constantly today with mass shooters, plastered across social media and TV when the victims are but an afterthought. Jammed in there is also the intrinsic misogyny, phallic symbolism, and sexually oriented imagery/themes of the sub-genre, those long prevalent pieces of the slasher we all know well, even those who aren’t exactly fans. The whole virginal final girl is taken on, as is the idea of the phallic weapon used to kill the villain in so many of these sub-genre pieces out there. It isn’t explored hugely in the film, but it is most certainly there.
“The girl‘s the key, yes, but, she‘s gotta have a supporting cast.”
There are so many good references here not to note. Casual horror fans likely won’t catch most of these. The horror hounds will bark in delight at all the Easter eggs planted throughout Behind the Mask. So, let’s begin!
Right off the bat, we start in front of a place that’s actually called the Red Rabbit Pub – a reference to the original Halloween, the Red Rabbit matchbook. Later we see the Lament Configuration (Hellraiser) at the home of fellow serial killer, now retired, Eugene (Scott Wilson); another bit of info, his character is intended as, though never explicitly stated to be, the grown up version of Billy from Black Christmas. There are a couple nods to Craven: a trio of girls playing jump rope; Kane Hodder plays a man living at 1428 Elm Street, the same house in which Nancy lived (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Hodder also plays the guy in the morgue at the end, during the credits. Doc Halloran is played by Freddy Krueger himself, and his whole aesthetic is very reminiscent of Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis from Carpenter’s Halloween. My favourite aspect here is the name Doc Halloran – a bit of Dick Halloran and his nickname for Danny Torrance, Doc, from The Shining.
So much metafictional interplay going on between this film and many of the greats over the years. I love that it isn’t all just Friday the 13th, Halloween, Freddy Krueger, but you also get Kubrick/Stephen King references there, Clive Barker, one of my favourites ever Black Christmas, and within the dialogue itself there are more.
“For good to be pitted against evil, you have to have evil, don‘t you?”
On top of everything else, there’s a fascinating switch from the documentary-style filming to a traditionally shot horror, right after the media ethics come to a head and the film crew decide their conscience has kicked in. The whole thing is genius, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon deserves every bit of credit and praise heaped upon it, truly. There are overrated films out there, despite what the constantly positive critics (sort of an oxymoron, that; cancels itself out to not be neutral) out there want to insist. But this is nowhere near being one of them.
Nearing Halloween, there are some horror films more fitting than others. I’d put this on every Halloween list that’s been written since this came out, as of this writing, near 12 years behind us. It’s actually been a couple years between my latest re-watch several days ago and the last one prior. However, each time I watch this horror gem I’m reminded exactly why it’s so wonderful, why it deserves a sequel one of these days, as well as why deconstructing a genre you love isn’t always necessarily a negative. You can actually learn how to love it even more.